The (Urban) Legend of Ernest Hemingway’s Six-Word Story: “For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.”

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A pierc­ing­ly dark piece of writ­ing, tak­ing the heart of a Dick­ens or Dos­to­evsky nov­el and carv­ing away all the rest, Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story—fabled fore­run­ner of flash- and twitter-fiction—is short­er than many a story’s title:

For sale, Baby shoes, Nev­er worn.

The extreme terse­ness in this ellip­ti­cal tragedy has made it a favorite exam­ple of writ­ing teach­ers over the past sev­er­al decades, a dis­play of the pow­er of lit­er­ary com­pres­sion in which, writes a quer­ent to the site Quote Inves­ti­ga­tor, “the read­er must coop­er­ate in the con­struc­tion of the larg­er nar­ra­tive that is oblique­ly limned by these words.” Sup­pos­ed­ly com­posed some­time in the ’20s at The Algo­nquin (or per­haps Luchow’s, depend­ing on whom you ask), the six-word sto­ry, it’s said, came from a ten-dol­lar bet Hem­ing­way made at a lunch with some oth­er writ­ers that he could write a nov­el in six words. After pen­ning the famous line on a nap­kin, he passed it around the table, and col­lect­ed his win­nings. That’s the pop­u­lar lore, any­way. But the truth is much less col­or­ful.

In fact, it seems that ver­sions of the six-word sto­ry appeared long before Hem­ing­way even began to write, at least as ear­ly as 1906, when he was only 7, in a news­pa­per clas­si­fied sec­tion called “Terse Tales of the Town,” which pub­lished an item that read, “For sale, baby car­riage, nev­er been used. Apply at this office.” Anoth­er, very sim­i­lar, ver­sion appeared in 1910, then anoth­er, sug­gest­ed as the title for a sto­ry about “a wife who has lost her baby,” in a 1917 essay by William R. Kane, who thought up “Lit­tle Shoes, Nev­er Worn.” Then again in 1920, writes David Haglund in Slate, the sup­posed Hem­ing­way line appears in a “1921 news­pa­per col­umn by Roy K. Moul­ton, who ‘print­ed a brief note that he attrib­uted to some­one named Jer­ry,’ ”:

There was an ad in the Brook­lyn “Home Talk” which read, “Baby car­riage for sale, nev­er used.” Would that make a won­der­ful plot for the movies?

Many more exam­ples of the nar­ra­tive device abound, includ­ing a 1927 com­ic strip describ­ing a sev­en-word version—“For Sale, A Baby Car­riage; Nev­er Used!”—as “the great­est short sto­ry in the world.” The more that Haglund and Quote Investigator’s Gar­son O’Toole looked into the mat­ter, the hard­er they found it to “believe that Hem­ing­way had any­thing to do with the tale.”

It is pos­si­ble Hem­ing­way, wit­ting­ly or not, stole the sto­ry from the clas­si­fieds or else­where. He was a news­pa­per­man after all, per­haps guar­an­teed to have come into con­tact with some ver­sion of it. But there’s no evi­dence that he wrote or talked about the six-word sto­ry, or that the lunch bet at The Algo­nquin ever took place. Instead, it appears that a lit­er­ary agent, Peter Miller, made up the sto­ry whole cloth in 1974 and lat­er pub­lished it in his 1991 book, Get Pub­lished! Get Pro­duced!: A Lit­er­ary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writ­ing.

The leg­end of the bet and the six-word sto­ry grew: Arthur C. Clarke repeat­ed it in a 1998 Read­er’s Digest essay, and Miller men­tioned it again in a 2006 book. Mean­while, sus­pi­cions arose, and the final debunk­ing occurred in a 2012 schol­ar­ly arti­cle in The Jour­nal of Pop­u­lar Cul­ture by Fred­er­ick A. Wright, who con­clud­ed that no evi­dence links the six-word sto­ry to Hem­ing­way.

So should we blame Miller for osten­si­bly cre­at­ing an urban leg­end, or thank him for giv­ing com­pet­i­tive min­i­mal­ists some­thing to beat, and inspir­ing the entire genre of the “six-word mem­oir”? That depends, I sup­pose, on what you think of com­pet­i­tive min­i­mal­ists and six-word mem­oirs. Per­haps the moral of the sto­ry, fit­ting in the Twit­ter age, is that the great man the­o­ry of author­ship so often gets it wrong; the most mem­o­rable sto­ries and ideas can arise spon­ta­neous­ly, anony­mous­ly, from any­where.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ernest Hem­ing­way Cre­ates a Read­ing List for a Young Writer, 1934

Ernest Hemingway’s Very First Pub­lished Sto­ries, Free as an eBook

18 (Free) Books Ernest Hem­ing­way Wished He Could Read Again for the First Time

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (25)
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  • Rain,adustbowlstory says:

    Car­riage: lame.
    Shoes: works.

    That’s Hem­ing­way.

  • Andrew Shalat says:

    I think your use of the word “picaresque” is wrong.

  • Adam says:

    Sounds like a Strind­berg short sto­ry, which isn’t exact­ly six words long, but bret­ty short too: about a page. Some­one seems to have sum­ma­rized it.

  • Ted Haigh says:

    “…inspir­ing the entire genre of the ‘six-word mem­oir’…” Not to men­tion this active lit­tle expres­sion of it….

    Every­one (more or less) writes their own, ad hoc. Lots of SMH con­tri­bu­tions but some real­ly out­stand­ing ones too.

  • MagicMitch says:

    I can’t attest as to the author, but here’s a very short sto­ry that I used to see in the Clas­si­fieds every once in awhile:

    Lost Dog:
    Miss­ing one eye,
    Miss­ing one leg,
    Answers to the name of “Lucky.”

  • Mike McCollum says:

    Here’s a five-word short sto­ry: “Small mat­ters occu­py small minds.”

  • Robert Carnegie says:

    The man was terse. He wrote short sen­tences. It is a sto­ry about the man who wrote the short­est sto­ry. The man would not be Hen­ry James. Hen­ry James would not write the short sen­tence, the short sto­ry. Hen­ry James sto­ries are like sto­ries by a Ger­man. Ernest Hem­ing­way went to Italy. He went to Paris and he went to Spain. He went to Cuba. He bought a phrase book and the sen­tences in the phrase book were short and he saw that the short sen­tences in the phrase book were good, because you said what you need­ed to say and noth­ing more. And it was good that the sen­tences were short because you would have to say them sev­er­al times before the peo­ple under­stood what you want­ed.

    I thought the sto­ry was about the cot for the baby but it could be any of the things that you have with a baby. It is not the same, because you don’t put a baby in shoes straight away. I could tell you that sto­ry, but it’s no fun, so I won’t.

  • Guy says:

    It’s not even a sto­ry.

  • Ken says:

    I would­n’t say it was debunked… whether or not Ernest H. actu­al­ly made up this line can nev­er be proven or debunked, and that mat­ters lit­tle. Whether or not he’d heard it some­where also mat­ters lit­tle. What mat­ters is we know of this sto­ry because of Ernest H. That is all. (oh, and the bit about the baby car­riage was a par­o­dy: hit was being sold not because the baby died, but because they had twins instead)

  • Reese says:

    Who knew you could go so deep into 6 words

  • tatum says:

    i did­nt fin­ish

  • Asdasfaf says:

    That is a very bad exam­ple of Twit­ter­ture. End of.

  • John Cena says:

    This guy is astound­ing. Amaz­ing.


  • D. Abramoff says:

    All nice expo­si­tion and sup­po­si­tion going nowhere. Try liv­ing it. That suc­cinct enough for you?

  • Fred Hasson says:

    Exact­ly. The sto­ry may have been going around, but Hem­ing­way told it right.

  • Abina says:

    wht does it mean … for sale ‚baby shoes,never worn

  • Morgan Brogdon says:

    ts actu­al­ly kin­da sim­ple but i can see how you did­n’t get it.
    For sale:being sold baby shoes:baby shoes nev­er worn: a baby has nev­er worn these shoes. Par­ents were expect­ing a baby so they bought baby shoes but they had a mis­car­riage so they had to sell them.

  • Kev says:

    It’s not even a sto­ry. The basis of a sto­ry HAS to HAVE a begin­ning, mid­dle, and end. State­ments are NOT sto­ries by def­i­n­i­tion and the fac­tu­al prop­er­ties that make up a sto­ry.

    And as for Mor­gan Brog­don’s expla­na­tion: “For sale: being sold baby shoes: baby shoes nev­er worn: a baby has nev­er worn these shoes. Par­ents were expect­ing a baby so they bought baby shoes but they had a mis­car­riage so they had to sell them.”

    No your OPINION of YOUR trans­la­tion is incor­rect. The STATEMENT can just as eas­i­ly be assumed to mean: “Par­ents nev­er used the shoes because they thought they were ugly” or “Par­ents nev­er used the shoes because they thought they were ugly.”

    It is FACTUALLY a state­ment and not a sto­ry. A sto­ry TELLS a sto­ry and isn’t open to INTERPRETATION.

  • Francis Thomas says:

    Mar­ried at noon, then swerved, avoid­ing bad­ger. Wid­ow­er at two.

  • Mojave Brennan says:

    It’s the open­ness of the inter­pre­ta­tion: fill­ing in with one’s sub­jec­tive spec­u­la­tion and imag­i­na­tion that IS the Sto­ry. The back sto­ry that fills in the miss­ing details which led to the state­ment: For sale, Baby shoes, Nev­er worn…

    The words that are not on the page that make this a sto­ry.

  • Robert A. Lytle says:

    Sun col­laps­es.

  • Michael says:

    “I am not here any longer…
    But…where I am now, I am no short­er, though clos­er to the end, of it.

  • sheldon says:

    Great article.Thanks for your great infor­ma­tion. The con­tent are quite impressive.I agree that Hem­ing­way is not that hard to use, but only once you get used to the col­or-cod­ing. I thought I would get used to it pret­ty quick­ly but after sev­er­al weeks, I still find it dis­tract­ing. I like the fea­tures that the free ver­sion of Hem­ing­way offers, I’ve been research­ing sim­i­lar alter­na­tives and ran­dom­ly found Gram­marly and INK for all. I’ve only used INK for all a cou­ple of times but the UI seems less dis­tract­ing and has some search opti­miza­tion fea­tures

  • james w smith says:

    I am bored, I read it.

  • The Debunker says:

    So I’ve been research­ing this for hours now, and Peter Miller did­n’t actu­al­ly say that. Miller wrote that he first heard the tale from an unnamed news­pa­per syn­di­ca­tor in 1974.

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